From Passive to Active Spectacle: Afterimages of the LA Riots
[written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the LA riots, one of the most significant events in recent US history – r&d]
LOS ANGELES, March 3, 1991 – On the shoulder of the freeway, police are beating a man. Because we are in the US, and because the man is black, we will know that this is a routine event, an ordinary brutality, part of the very fabric of everyday life for non-whites. But something is exceptional this time. There is an observer, as there often is, but the observer holds in his hands an inhuman witness, a little device for producing images which are accepted as identical with the real. The images – grainy, shaking with the traces of the body behind them – enframe this event, defamiliarize it, make it appear in all its awfulness as both unimaginable singularity and example of a broader category of everyday violence. The recorded beating of Rodney King marks, as many have noted, the beginning of one of the most significant episodes of US history. But few have examined this event in terms of the transformative effects it exerted upon contemporary spectacle and its would-be enemies. By spectacle, we mean here those social relations and activities which are mediated directly by the representations, whether visual or verbal, which capital has subsumed (that is, remade according to its own imperatives).
For us, the advent of the Rodney King video marks the first major shift in the political economy of spectacle, which we choose to describe as a passage from passive to active spectacle, from spectacle as pacifying object of passive consumption to spectacle as the active product of the consumer (whose leisures or recreations have long since become forms of work). In its classical form, spectacle creates a situation in which “spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other” (Debord.) But at a certain point in its development, spectacle dispenses with the need for centralization, finding that passive consumers can quite easily be recruited to the production of spectacle. The shift from unilateral toward multilateral relations does not promise an end to isolation, but rather its perfection. We might think of the distinction here as the difference between the television screen and the computer screen, but since we are talking about a set of social relations as much as technological apparatuses, we should be careful to avoid identifying such relations with any particular technologies. The video camera is merely one of many devices which assist in the transformation of administered life into self-administered life.
But back to the origin story (like all origin stories, it’s partly myth). The mutation from passive to active spectacle begins, as seems properly literary, square in the middle of one of the most significant nerve-plexuses of the spectacular world: Rodney King is beaten to the edge of death a few miles from the studios of Burbank and Hollywood, while celebrities whizz by in Porsches and Maseratis. A routine event, an ordinary brutality, an everyday violence: a black man is pulled over by white police officers. They have some reason or another. There is always a reason, if only raison d’État. They beat King savagely, until he is almost dead. Perhaps they have gone a little too far this time, gotten a little overexcited? In any case, it’s nothing that can’t be taken care of, made to disappear with a few obfuscatory phrases in the police report. Except that, somehow, everything is different here. Recorded, duplicated, transmitted, broken down into the pixels of a million television screens, the video tape is more than evidence. It is self-evidence. And because these images are drained of all affect, reduced to pure objectivity, they can become the vehicle for the most violent and intense of affects.
The release of this video marks, more or less, the entrance into history of the video camera as weapon, as instrument of counter-surveillance. For a brief moment it does seem, for many, as if the truth really will set us free. As if the problem with capitalism was that people just didn’t know, just didn’t understand, just hadn’t seen what it’s really like underneath the ideological mist. Noam Chomsky’s politics as much as Julian Assange’s seem to hinge upon this kind of moment – so rare, really – when the release of information becomes explosive, as opposed to the thousands of other moments when the leaked photographs of government torture camps or the public records dump indicating widespread fraud and corruption fail to elicit any outrage whatsoever. From here and from the related forms of media activism which the Rodney King tape precipitates, there flows an entire politics of transparency, based on a correlation between the free circulation of information and freedom as such, which we will recognize as the politics of Wikileaks and the more-libertarian wing of Anonymous. But this is also the matrix from which emerges the ideology of the Twitter hashtag and the livestreamed video that so animates the Occupy movement and the 15 May movement in Spain, an ideology that seems incapable of distinguishing between OWS and #ows, between the massification of “tweets” around a particular theme and the massing of bodies together in an occupied square. As many of us will know from the experience of the last year, this is an ideology that speaks of democracy but reeks of surveillance, whose wish for a world transparent to all means that it sees a provocateur behind every masked face and unassailable virtue in all that is visible and unmasked.
But we have already skipped to the end, it seems, far from the infancy of active spectacle. At first, it’s true, the mass media display a certain hostility to these newer “participatory” forms of media distribution and production, which seem to threaten the centralized, unidirectional spectacle upon which the mass media are built. The various conglomerates even resort to outright repression on occasion. But from the very beginning it is startlingly clear that recuperation and neutralization are a far easier path. Take the industry of “news reporting,” for instance. As the cable channels shift over to 24/7 reporting, it is no longer sufficient to pursue the old spectacular schemata, creating, rather than merely reporting on, the various scandals and sensations. It is not enough to simply position the cameras in a certain spot and observe their effect on the filmed. The news must become co-extensive with the time of life itself. One must, therefore, do more than simply create novelties. In the era of active spectacle, one must create the proper conditions for the novel and newsworthy. But, as we know, the news has been manufactured to produce certain effects since long before the appearance of active spectacle. Reporters rarely pursue their prey, as one is led to believe. Instead, the reported-on must actively solicit coverage, since the various agencies will rarely venture out into the wild of lived experience. Why would they need to, when so much material is already manufactured to their specifications by corporations and governmental entities? Therefore, the periodization described above must be complicated a bit. The transformation that emerges with the video camera and social media is really a generalization of the capacity to produce the true which was, during the classical era of spectacle, limited to certain elites. Active spectacle was, in its way, always nascent within passive spectacle. You just had to pay more for its privileges.
Every scandal loves a trial. And this is the age, let’s remember, of the blockbuster trial, the totally televised trial, followed droolingly by the recently developed 24/7 cable news channels still looking for content to fill out the hours. The 1990s: one could tell its story solely through the names King, Simpson, Clinton. And so the trial of the police officers begins, a trial that puts at stake the institution of the police itself, if only because the state must insist, in defending the officers, that their conduct was merely exemplary, that they were simply doing their job. But it is a trial in another sense, an experiment with a new form of publicity and sensationalism that places the courtroom square in the middle of every living room: it is a putting-on-trial of a new kind of reason, a new affect, and the various powers are reckless here in stoking a paranoid desire for apocalyptic violence. (Later, they will understand their own capacities better, and exhibit more circumspection in deploying such powers in unpredictable environments).
No one, therefore, is really all that surprised when – after the police officers who beat Rodney King are pronounced not guilty – thousands upon thousands of the invisible residents of this hypervisible city rise up to smash and burn and loot the very machinery which determines who gets seen and how. In this sense, the Los Angeles riots of 1992 are a rare example of a struggle over the terms of representation which is not a diversion from struggle on the material plane but rather an incitement to it, perhaps because this is not a struggle for representation as much as it is a struggle against representation, one that puts into question the very means of deciding what gets seen or said, rather than the content of such seeing or saying. For a few nights, it promises the self-destruction of all our ways of making things visible or heard, a bonfire of the means of depicting and speaking which the most adventurous avant-garde could only dream about.
As noted, none of this controverts the extent to which these were bread riots, or their late 20th-century equivalent – organized, as is the case with all looting, around a material expropriation of necessaries and luxuries alike. But perhaps, more importantly, crystallized around the hatred of commodities, a hatred whose satisfaction means, in fact, the slaking of a thirst almost as urgent as the need for the use-values themselves. We have to understand this as a period of outright war, when the number of people – black men, in particular – serving prison sentences increased by an order of magnitude, when cops were being trained by Special Forces who brought the “lessons” of the Central American counter-insurgency wars home to South Central Los Angeles. Which is to say that these were matters of life and death as well as recognition – closer to the original Hegelian story of life-and-death struggle for recognition than its pale electoral successors . One must see people stealing the video-cameras and televisions – the big-ticket appliances of which they bad been, for so long, the object – as an attempt to secure their very reality. To become subject, not object. Spectacle, for a brief moment, reveals its own fragility: transmitting, disseminating and relaying antagonism rather than muting and deflecting it. For a moment, self-representation is not the newest face of domination, an internalization of the enemy, but promises the destruction of all mediation, all intermediaries. Bill Cosby goes on TV to urge the rioters to return to their homes and watch the season finale of The Cosby Show.
In a certain manner, this project of expropriating the means of representation and transmission is an eloquent literalization of the music of the riots itself, hip hop, a music based upon the transformation of consumer electronics – the turntable, the home stereo – into instruments of musical production. Technologies which were once means of production – capital goods, in other words – become consumer products. But then, in a final turn, these consumer products become, once again, the means of production for a new generation of untrained musicians whose output is based upon appropriation and sampling, which are a particular kind of consumption-become-production. All the dreams of decentralization and horizontality which we will fondly remember in their suffusion through the 1990s begin here: the politics of the rhizome, the network, the galaxy, the autonomous nuclei. They begin here, with mass-produced consumer electronics whose drive is not only toward cheapening but miniaturization. It’s not just that information wants to be free; it wants to become a kind of gas, an array of volatilized nano-machines, circumambient, hyperlocative. “Copwatch” organizations and other counter-surveillance projects – taking the Rodney King video as their clarion call – spread faster and farther as the price of the camcorder falls, as it becomes smaller, lighter. They spread at the same rate as CCTV spreads, adorning every street corner in cities like Chicago and London. And, of course, tactical representation finds itself eminently suited to the politics of representation that dominates the liberal multiculturalism of the 1990s. An entire ethos is built upon this pedagogical and epistemological basis. Information and its dissemination becomes the means by which everyone can have their voice. The independent media initiatives that emerge at the end of the decade essentially elaborate upon this foundation: the free circulation of information as a placeholder for other freedoms.
In Los Angeles during the 1990s, this made a certain sense. We will render power visible, we thought. We will show everyone that the emperor has no clothes. We will show everyone who they are. Like the sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live, capable of revealing the slithering horror beneath the familiar present which our normal (that is, ideological) vision construes – the camcorder would disclose what others couldn’t see. It would be visceral and immediate in a way that language cannot, even if language is capable of making finer distinctions. But it would also make things seem unreal. It would also be an instrument of de-realization, shifting struggle from the ground of praxis toward the ground of epistemology, and from there toward questions of knowledge and ideology which, presumably, only the technicians of politics can solve for us. And so, in the wake of the riots, the recuperation begins. Like all recuperations, it will seem to precede, somehow, the acts of resistance from which it sprang, if only by erasing their real origin.
The shift from static, passive spectacle to dynamic, active spectacle is nothing other than this process of recuperation and subsumption. Charged with reproducing the social relations necessary for the continuation of capitalism, spectacle adjusts to its critique, subsumes it, offers up a series of false alternatives decorated in the bracing negativity of the day. Spectacle stages its own negation, the way a hunted criminal might stage her own death by leaving behind someone else’s corpse in place of her own. Spectacle in its classical phase proceeded by replacing all exchanges between persons with dead phrases and images subject to the whims of the commodity, with static and chatter designed to baffle and delay any intelligent action. It thwarted any meaningful activity by all manner of phantasms, false leads, cul-de-sacs and proxies. But its weakness was that it required the constant ministrations of a class of petit-bourgeois intermediaries, clericals, creatives and technicians, themselves the group most deeply colonized by spectacle. Active spectacle, on the other hand, does away with some portion of this class. Active spectacle is, first and foremost, a labor-saving device. It is a way of getting the consumer of spectacle to become the producer of spectacle, all the while pretending that this voluntary labor is, in fact, a form of freedom and greater choice, an escape from the stultifying imposition of this or that taste which the vertical power of the passive spectacle forces on us.
This is an alternate way to talk about the recuperation of negativity which has been ongoing since the 1970s. Everyone is familiar with this – the graffiti kids who add value to a neighborhood by fucking it up, giving it the right degree of color and edginess, and perhaps inspiring, with their visual style, some future generation of designers and advertisers. Eventually, as we all know, the great spread of alternative lifestyles and forms and subcultures that follow in the wake of the aborted liberations of the 1960s and 1970s find their final resting place in the boutique or the museum, and this process – let’s call it the turnover time of recuperation – is constantly accelerating. But the paradigmatic case here, the final profusion, comes in the realm of technology: the merger of home and office, work and leisure, effected by the personal computer means that one finally becomes the consumer of one’s own self-designed fantasias. These are tools for taking the dream of autonomy concealed in the notion of self-management and converting it into an efficient machine for exploitation and control – a way of making the cop and the boss immanent to our every activity. The miniaturization of information technology – which also means the recession and involution of all its working components, so that the surface can be humanized, made aesthetically pleasing – allows for control to be decentralized, networked, built from the ground up in new shapes and flavors. It is a way of spreading the bureaucratic protocols of office technology across the entirety of society.
Once the internet is streamlined, cheapened, and made easy-to-use, an entire political ontology gets attached to “the net”– its origin in military-industrial and bureaucratic protocols hidden beneath warm, “user-friendly” layers which promise the end of a merely unilateral media, promise a new media based upon participation, self-actualization, democracy, promise to free us from reliance upon authoritarian or hierarchical communication. It is a media, as many will claim, which encourages dissent rather than suppresses it, a media no longer dependent upon the massifications and conformities of the broadcast form. No longer the passive receiver of consumable representations, we become the co-creators of the conditions of our own subordination – we don’t merely choose from the 1001 flavors of horror on offer but actively create them, share them, use them as the basic substance of our connections to others, whether friend, enemy, or acquaintance. We are free to make and remake ourselves endlessly in the shape of a thousand avatars and personae. Never mind that these technologies depend, at root, upon standardized lumps of silica and copper and plastic, on the smoothing of electrical switches into reified patterns and routines, on the transformation of matter into algebra. For the various “independent media” initiatives, the internet is as fundamental an apparatus as the video-camera was for the copwatch programs.
The advent of blogging and the various social networking sites – MySpace, then Facebook, and finally (once everyone realized that anything worth saying in such fora could be said in 140 characters or not at all) Twitter – essentially build upon the protocols, models and values established by “independent media.” They represent the depoliticization of these forms, something easy to do since, from the start, “indymedia” as a concept was built around a false formalism. Because the website proved itself such an effective tool for the coordination of thousands of bodies at the counter-summit – distributing information about the location of rioting, tactical weaknesses, arrestees, food and medical services – it was obvious that it could also serve to coordinate thousands of bodies in other kinds of campaigns: advertising campaigns, fundraising drives, mobilizations for this or that political candidate. Social media: the term means that our sociality itself has become what is communicated, has become content, not form. No longer do we merely read the news: now we can write it, now we can make it even more banal and empty than before. Yes, everyone their 15 minutes of celebrity, except now these 15 minutes are broken up into millisecond-sized atoms of time, salted throughout our hours and days, held by invisible readers and contacts and “friends.” Here the voyeur meets the exhibitionist. Here the exhibitionist meets the voyeur. Here the most gregarious sociality and the most contorted narcissism are absolutely identical. Tellingly, new cellular phones now contain two cameras – one facing out into the world, away from the screen, and one reflecting back upon the ego.
But because active spectacle takes hostility toward spectacle as one of its primary fuel sources, because it is always cultivating such antagonism at the same time as it neutralizes it, there is always the possibility of explosive breakdown, the possibility that a violent proletarian content may become contagious. Such was the case when the WikiLeaks affair – initially subsumed almost completely by a libertarian logic of transparency and the free flow of information – transformed into a low-intensity cyberwar with the arrival of Anonymous, LulzSec and others. Although originally entirely devoted to a kind of Assangiste framework that cared only about the free flow of internet information (namely, porn, pirated media and software) – a position that still dominates much of their discourse – these groups eventually became frameworks into which more and more radical content could get injected, and now one routinely hears Anonymous communiqués cite various insurrectionary watchwords, and describe their enemy not as censorship but capitalism and the state as such. Perhaps more significantly, we can note the way in which technologies like Twitter – originally developed so that we could better market commodities to each other – are now used for all-out assaults on the commodity, used to organize proletarian flashmobs and rioting in the suburbs of London, in Baltimore and Kansas City and Milwaukee.
10 years later, we all recognize the limits of the anti-globalization movement, limits that still constantly reimpose themselves even if we have moved into a new age of austerity and riot. The antiglobalization movement failed by winning all that it won on the ground of representation alone. Not only were its politics essentially a representational critique of the representational (direct democracy); not only did it fight via representational means (media activism); but more importantly its focus remained limited to the representatives of multi-national capital: the institutions and ambassadors responsible for maintaining the international monetary and trade system. Over and over again, the countersummit conflated the representative institutions for the thing itself – moving back and forth between an attack on a proxy for capital, and capital itself.
It is obvious that this imprisonment within the imaginary is an effect of the very basis – a technopolitical basis – upon which these struggles are conducted, rather than the other way around. Representation is means, content and form: everyone has a camera at the protest and the dangers here are not only that one is unwittingly capturing evidence for the state, but that we are therefore entrapped within the imaginary, our finest moments rendered pornographic – that is, made into a simple conduit for charge or sensation, upon which any idea, no matter how fascist, can be overlaid.
Let’s put it bluntly: with only a few exceptions, the journalists whose presence at the demonstration or riot is vouchsafed by the camera are nothing other than the agents of the state, little different than informants in their attitude toward what transpires. Their feigned neutrality is the neutrality of “the citizen,” of public opinion, an enemy position. Except when used with incredible care and sensitivity and artfulness, the camera is basically an instrument of neutralization. We can have no tolerance for those who attempt to use our antagonism as stepping-stones in their career; nor can we tolerate the special rights and privileges which journalists want to claim, as if holding a camera or press-badge entitled them to exceptional status. This is liberalism’s phantasm – the materialization of the abstract personhood which has mangled our lives for centuries. In any case, the police no longer give a fuck. Everywhere there are new laws prohibiting the filming of police and they now routinely arrest people because they have a camera, not only to protect themselves from scandal but to collect evidence.
Surveillance and countersurveillance, spectacle and counterspectacle, then, merge together into one representational surround. Riot footage becomes an advertisement for jeans, as if shopping and destroying a shop were equivalent activities. If counter-surveillance aims to light up the unevenesses, the blotches and stains that the picture of the world hides, it also runs the risk, as all struggles do, of fighting on the ground of representation alone, and of winning thusly the mere representation of winning. Though we do not use the term in this sense exclusively, this is what it means to speak of “politics” in the pejorative sense – the translation of struggle to the realm of representation, either through the substitutionism of the assembly, the party, or the image-world. It means to fight representatives and proxies endlessly and pyrrhically, because capital is nothing more than this process of creating proxies. The catch is that, because they still believe that the question of representation is the question that must be answered, many anti-representational strategies – the participatory democracy of the general assembly, for instance – remain trapped within politics in the same way that the atheist remains trapped within religion because he or she takes seriously the question of god’s existence.
The one exception to this story of diversion to the ground of representation is the black bloc, which by its very nature refuses visibility. The black bloc emerges as a counterweight to the regime of hypervisibilty, emerges as the avenging angel of all that has been cast into the burning hell of the overlit world. It conjures a black spot which makes the illumination of the world all the more severe; it is a kind of “darkness visible,” as Milton says of Lucifer’s resting place. But at what point does this darkness become only its own visibility, a set of predictable movements and moments, easily recognized simply because it is the thing which refuses recognition? How often is it the case that the plate glass of the bank is shattered but the camera lens, with all of its frightening transparency, remains? One of the problems, here, as others have noted, is that the black bloc often distinguishes itself from the larger mass of people in the streets. Even if all identity inside the group is quickly liquidated by masks and black clothing, the bloc still affirms an identity – albeit a negative one – with regard to its environment. Rather than attempting an absolute negation of visibility, we might instead cultivate a kind of chiaroscuro effect, attending to the ebb and flow of light and shadow naturally at play in such situations. True anonymity is the anonymity of the crowd, the anonymity of people in regular dress who begin to throw rocks at cops, loot stores, and burn cars, and whose anonymity comes from their subtle commonalities with thousands upon thousands of other figures. (Though, of course, concealing one’s face is a precaution that can never be dispensed with, and should be actively encouraged on all occasions). The more it becomes possible for the active minority to merge with the anonymous crowd, to dissolve and abolish its own specificity at the height of the attack, the closer we come to the kind of riot which continues past the first night. Whether people continue to use black blocs is a practical matter, of course, and has to do with local conditions which cannot be evaluated in the abstract. But we must be honest about the limitations of the form, and note that there are anonymities superior to the black bloc, forms of self-abolition that do not establish a radical identity apart from the larger mass of people in the streets.
It is not, therefore, merely a question of creating “zones of offensive opacity.” Every opacity has its complementary transparency, and we must attend to both. We must be willing to make ourselves visible here, invisible there, and neither everywhere. Language, in this sense, is often superior to the photograph’s ontological trickery. We all recognize the power of the well-written communiqué or manifesto, the well-designed poster with the explosive phrase. This power is art, poetry, art that lives on, nevertheless, after the death of art. Taken up on the field of battle, conjoined with real practices of negation, this poetry – the beautiful language of our century, as it was once called – has a real explosive force, one that does not pass through reason and understanding alone, but which trades on affect, perception, sensation. The technical means we have at present for conveying such affects and perceptions are, let’s admit it, very weak – a series of pre-given filters and plug-ins which we can apply to this or that image or idea. Why is it, then, that the various radical milieus do not at present produce more films, more poetry and novels, communicate through drawings and illustrated stories as well as photographs? Why must we subordinate ourselves to a barren plain-style, on the one hand, and a mawkish sentimentalism on the other? Why do we accept the self-evidence of the very images which the state uses to speak about us? In expanding our capacities for thought and communication, in expanding the formal and technical means for such, we must learn to speak of and to each other in a way that takes exception with the way we are spoken about, which takes exception with the language of the status quo, the state. This is a matter of how we say such things as much as what we say. Active spectacle, let’s remember, hides the issue of content by allowing for modest transformations of the form of communication. This is why the transposition of the locus of questioning from what to how relies on a weak understanding of recent history. Asking how has, for a long time now, been a counter-revolutionary question.
Late in life, in the midst of his drunken melancholia and paranoid rumination, Guy Debord entertained himself by inventing a chess-like game of war in which the chief innovation was the establishment of lines of communication between pieces. Pieces that were unconnected via intermediating, communicating pieces could not move at all. Debord understood, in this game as well as in his writing, that all struggles have a communicative dimension. The difference, however, between the situation we confront and the situation in Debord’s game is that we are forced to use the very same lines of communication as our enemy. Every one of our communications is at one and the same time an enemy transmission, part of the enemy system, part of spectacle. To operate effectively, to turn spectacle in its active form against itself, we have to examine our communications both from our own standpoint and the enemy’s, developing forms of communication which are transparent for us but opaque for them, which allow us to communicate and expand our ability to think and perceive collectively without assisting the state in its attempts to monitor and obstruct us, and which reach out to sympathizers, fellow-travelers, and comrades without giving away vital information to the enemy.
In this regard, matters of style are at one and the same time matters of survival.
Research & Destroy